FFDH, Harvard Forward Hold Panel on “Harvard Amid Crises”

Discussion examines the community’s path forwards amid a sick society and a sick planet

arvard Yard may be silent, with commencement having taken place online and the reunions that normally mark this time of year canceled — and yet, even as the pandemic has paused campus life, the crises shaping the broader world have only accelerated. On Sunday, alumni from across the Harvard community came together for a different sort of reunion, discussing the community’s path forwards amid a sick society and a sick planet. The event, “Harvard Amid Crises: Climate Change, COVID, and Divestment” examined Harvard’s responsibilities at a time of increasing disruptions resulting from climate events, pandemics, and white supremacy.

Panelists began by discussing the importance of recognizing the ties between the climate crisis and the crisis of racial injustice. Dr. Adrienne Hollis, Senior Climate Justice and Health Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and former Harvard Chan School postdoctoral fellow, discussed the ways in which structural racism shapes exposure to toxic environmental pollution, and the ways in which such pollution amplifies the peril of Covid-19 and other diseases. The message was underscored by a recorded message from Fenton Lutunatabua, director of the Pacific Climate Warriors, who discussed the fact that though vulnerable communities bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis, they are often on the front lines of fighting it. “We’re not just mere victims of climate change; we’re the healers, the dancers, artists, navigators,” he said. “We’re ready to rise up to protect our islands from runaway climate change”

Conversation also focused on the role that Harvard as an institution has to play in confronting these urgent challenges. Even as peer institutions such as Oxford, Brown, Cornell, and the University of California have recognized the importance and efficacy of divesting from fossil fuels, Harvard has repeatedly refused to take similar action — most recently, announcing a climate plan which embraced the fossil fuel industry as a partner even as that industry actively seeks to undermine Harvard’s own experts. “There is a trillion-dollar industry whose business model demands that we not take climate change seriously,” said Bill McKibben, Harvard ’82 and co-founder of environmental advocacy group 350.org, “and it’s that business that Harvard has chosen to partner with over and over and over again.”

Midge Purce, Harvard ’17, member of the US Soccer Women’s National Team, and Harvard Forward candidate, ascribed this institutional apathy to a failure of Harvard’s governance. “If the people in power refuse to listen, we will put people who listen in power,” she said. Harvard Forward, a slate of Harvard Board of Overseers candidates fighting for climate action and responsive university governance, will be on the overseers ballot in August, having qualified with thousands of petition signatures from across the Harvard community.

Throughout the event, speakers used the opportunity to reflect on the past while looking towards the future. His commencement might have been virtual, said Caleb Schwartz, Harvard ’20, but challenging an unjust system while fighting for a better future as a member of the fossil fuel divestment movement was a “spiritual commencement” of its own.

Harvard community members interested in joining this fight can sign the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard Alumni Campaign petition, join a working group here, and learn more about Harvard Forward and pledge to vote here.

We call upon Harvard to #divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies and reinvest responsibly.